Multidisciplinary
I recently had an interesting conversation with one of my Twitter followers. He had challenged my use of a certain social media tool. He pointed out that many studies show the tool is ineffective. These studies use data gathered from a broad swath of Twitter users. He was relying on studies that used data which might, or might not, have any value in predicting the behavior of my Twitter followers. I pointed out that I use data from my Twitter feed to gauge whether the tool helps me, and that data supports using the tool — so far.

We had a basic disagreement. His point was that large data sets showed no benefit from the tool, my point was that a specific data set (and more relevant data set) showed I was getting a benefit. He seemed frustrated, believing no doubt that I was wedded to a worthless tool. He suggested that many of my followers probably dismiss what I say about billable hours, believing that my general arguments about billable hours do not apply to their specific cases. Let’s call this the Twitter Tool Story.

I had a second conversation recently with a different Twitter follower (let it never be said that you can’t get engagement on Twitter). This follower leads a global law firm network (more precisely, he helped create and guide the network). He wants to establish global quality standards for legal services. Legal industry trade associations would coordinate the work. While I lauded his efforts to bring quality standards to legal services, I was not in favor of the global approach. I thought it might work to establish metric categories, but I disagreed with defining specific metrics firms and clients would use globally. Legal practices vary significantly around the world due to law, local customs, and other variables. Establishing one metric would not mean much and could be misleading and even counter-productive. My follower did not agree. Let’s call this the Global Metric Story.

On Not Being Multidisciplinary

I share these stories because both point to a common problem in the legal industry: weak knowledge of statistics. I am sensitive to this issue, because I was a graduate teaching assistant for statistics courses. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and when it comes to law and math, we often see that maxim played out in real life.

For most of my career, legal services providers* could get by without understanding statistics. Now that the data era has arrived, providers lacking a basic statistics understanding will find themselves increasingly at a disadvantage when compared to those who have basic statistics fluency. Queue the howls.

Lawyers point out that we tell them they must have proficiency in law, project management, process improvement, pricing theory, marketing, business development, and now math? There was a time not long ago when an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a law degree was all it took to earn a decent living. How can it be that lawyers must now know all these “secondary” areas?

Any decent response must start with the obvious. First, lawyers had it easy, and second, welcome to the complex world. I will add some brief color to the first point and then move to the second (but if you want a sneak preview, consider this essay: “Using Multidisciplinary Thinking to Approach Problems in a Complex World”).

I am sure very few lawyers would admit this, but lawyers have gotten off easy for over 100 years. While a lawyer could get by on a philosophy degree and three years of law school, doctors, business leaders, engineers, accountants, and other professionals had to go well beyond their basic field to stay proficient. Law professors took on additional fields, as the “law and” movement blossomed. Even some lawyers (myself included) added professional training in other fields. But practicing lawyers stuck to the basics—a law school education focused on reading court cases and a law student received (and was offered) not much else.

Most lawyers won’t admit that the world has changed since the late 1800s, when the current legal education system was developed. Law has shifted from a field for the generalist to one for the specialist. It also has shifted from legal theory only to legal theory plus knowledge of several other subjects. In business, those subjects include accounting (the mad rush to train in-house lawyers in basic accounting after Sarbanes-Oxley was passed, comes to mind); in employment law, organization theories; and in securities law, finance. Even then, we have just scratched the surface. Is isn’t that lawyers now must do more, it is that for 100 years they got by doing less.

On Being Multidisciplinary

I mentioned a blog post a bit earlier (“Using Multidisciplinary Thinking”). The post was written by Shane Parrish, who says that at one time he spent his days “in management with an intelligence agency.” I like spy thrillers, so I was a sucker for this bait (apparently I am not the only one, because Parrish has a long list of well-respected individuals who like his site). But, the real thing I liked about this post, apart from its heavy focus on Steven Pinker who is one of my favorite writers, was the focus on “multidisciplinary.”

I asked a few lawyers what “multidisciplinary” meant to them, and got the expected answers: corporate and litigation, finance and tax. Not exactly what Parrish meant.

Parrish focused on Pinker’s form of multidisciplinary thinking. Start with your hypothesis, but then look at it from many perspectives. In Pinker’s case, this can mean psychology, sociology, economics, and history. This technique takes you much farther from your home base than what lawyers traditionally do. But, it doesn’t mean you must become an expert in every field.

Now, many lawyers will say they are not asked to do what Pinker, a professor at Harvard, is asked to do. The role of a lawyer, they say, is not to delve deeply into the “why,” it is to solve the problem facing the client. Hence, the lawyer’s technical and narrower focus. A client does not need her lawyer to ask why companies in many European countries use employment agreements for senior and even mid-level employees when U.S. companies do not. That client needs her lawyer to provide an enforceable agreement that specifies the relationship between the company and the employee.

If that is all lawyers have become—technicians and scriveners—then game over. Software can perform the drafting function, with some input from the client. One lawyer could perform the work of hundreds, perhaps thousands, and that is why I and others talk about excess labor in legal services. I also argue that excess labor for technical tasks can be re-deployed to value added strategic activities.

The lawyer could, of course, choose a different path. With the number of employment-eligible people increasing who choose freelancing over full-time gigs for one employer, the entire structure of “employment” shifts. The multidisciplinary lawyer could look at what that means for employers and employees, and think about how to understand that world through the law. That lawyer advises her client on a broader scale, while ensuring that tasks such as drafting agreements is done in the most efficient and least costly manner.

Two Stories Highlight the Multidisciplinary Problem

We should go back to the Twitter Tool Story and the Global Metric Story. The challenges they raised exposed more about what my two Twitter followers don’t know about statistics than anything else. Both favored the general over the specific. In the Twitter Tool Story, the flaw in my challenger’s reasoning lay in trying to use conclusions from general data on a specific case, given that we had superior data. There may come a time when my Twitter followers resemble the population of Twitter users included in the studies he relied on. But not today. For whatever reason (perhaps because my Twitter followers do not mirror the population of Twitter users at large) my specific data does a much better job than the general data in predicting the behavior of my Twitter followers.

The Global Metric Story takes us down the same path. An attempt to build a metric that we can use around the globe, in over 240 countries (and many more jurisdictions within those countries) to predict quality favors the general over the specific. We need to measure quality. But, quality to a corporate client in Jakarta, Indonesia does not need to mean the same thing as quality to a corporate client in Alabama, United States. In fact, from past experience, applying the same quality metric in both places would be a disaster.

Those who know more about statistics may be muttering that there are tools we can use to compare the populations from which we pull data, ways to compare the metrics, and on and on. All true. My point is not that my challengers needed to be statisticians, only that their lack of knowledge about some basic issues in statistical measurement and social sciences hampered them. More significantly, it limited what they could do for their clients. A quote from Steven Pinker helps sum up the predicament my Twitter challengers faced:

If you’re just manipulating numbers, you never know whether you’ve wan­dered into some preposterous conclusion by taking numbers too seriously that couldn’t possibly reflect reality.

It would help them to know more about statistics, but it would also help to have a multidisciplinary perspective so they could see how to use statistics in the real world. Remember, knowing about a field is not the same as becoming an expert in the field.

Our Greatest Asset Is Curiosity

My Twitter challengers highlighted another reason why lawyers (and here I do mean lawyers, not legal services providers) will find the road ahead increasingly difficult to travel. The obsession with time-equals-money has squeezed curiosity out of lawyers. In law school, an increasing number of students draw a line between the courses they take, passing the bar exam, and getting a job. Yes, to practice law you must (still) pass a bar exam. But, the obsession means a narrower focus on relevancy when picking classes.

Once law school and the bar are behind a lawyer, the focus on a niche increases. Again, the driver is money. Clients will pay for specialists—those who can answer a question on the phone, without research, and in the shortest time possible. That type of specialization works for the tactician, not the strategist. As problems grow in complexity, the tactician must know each step to get from start to goal, while the strategist must see the bigger picture and have the perspective to question the goal.

The data shows that over many decades, lawyers have become excellent at tactics, but not very good at strategy (see this article to read a bit more). Lawyers have abandoned their curiosity. They aren’t multidisciplinary and even within “law” they know less and less about more and more.

Of course, it is a reversible trend. In fact, it is one of the easier trends to reverse. The antidote for over-specialization has two parts. First, don’t do what you don’t need to do. By this I mean turn over to computers those things computers do better than you (automation) and eliminate those things no one needs to do. Both steps free up time (up to 50% of your time, by recent conservative estimates). Second, use that time to become multidisciplinary. Employment lawyers should know more than the latest case on race discrimination. They should know trends affecting employees, what employers want when hiring, theories about workplace sociology, risks from freelancing, and so on. By expanding their knowledge set outside law to psychology, sociology, organization behavior, economics, etc., they become applied knowledge providers, not just technicians.

If all you have is the technical capacity to provide legal services in a defined area, then all you have to offer clients as a competitive differentiation is price. If you re-define your role from technician to problem solver, and re-jigger what you know beyond the law, you increase your value (to yourself, not just clients). I get asked why I write on a broad variety of topics instead of focusing on, for example, lean thinking applied to legal services. My answer is that I do write about lean thinking applied to legal services. I just define that topic in real life terms instead of how many experience it: the technically narrow field of how to do tasks such as process mapping. In real life, lean thinking is not about cutting costs, it is about freeing people and resources to focus on the strategic initiatives of the organization, to help people perform at the top of their skill levels.

* Many of you know the debate about using “non-lawyer” when referring to anyone who does not have a law degree. While technically accurate, the term has a negative connotation, suggesting those without law degrees lack some characteristic that elevates those with law degrees higher in the social order. I have switched to using the term “legal services provider” to mean anyone—with or without a law degree—who provides legal services. A lawyer is one type of legal services provider, but so is a project manager, legal solutions architect, legal data scientist and so on. Similarly, I use the term “legal services organization” to mean any organization that provides legal services. A law firm is such an organization, but so are an e-discovery business, a legal technology company, and a contract lawyer service. A lawyer working at a bicycle repair shop is not a legal services provider and the shop is not a legal services organization. But, a legal data scientist working at a legal managed services company is a legal services provider working at a legal services organization. Once I have established the terms in the text, I switch to using “provider” and “organization” (or their plural forms). I also use “lawyer” and “law firm,” but only when I mean those specific individuals and organizations.